How the Big Bash League is kicking the NRL up the marketing arse
How to create an amazing entertainment product
For over 20 years, I’ve attended rugby league matches in Australia. I love the occasion and the contest.
I love the uncertainty of the game that is about to begin. The pre-game atmosphere is addictive.
But then my pre-match high sinks. Because that song plays. Puff Daddy’s Come With Me. The song was released in 1998, and was part of the Godzilla soundtrack.
The NRL have been playing that damn song for years.
It plays as a psychological anchor, a reminder of a sport that simultaneously nods its head to the origins and traditions but is trapped by the same old same old.
Like Godzilla’s indestructibility, rugby league claims to be resilient. And it’s true. The sport has, despite annual controversies, grown.
For example, I love the Thursday morning banter that comes with the previous night’s State of Origin match. I love the emotion filled Anzac Day fixtures. I love the smell of September finals action.
Much in rugby league season works.
But despite the high fives and group hugs that come with each year’s Origin series and high TV ratings, the sport has not grown enough.
Rugby league in Australia is trapped by a belief that what worked yesterday will work tomorrow.
Let’s review the four rugby league products on the menu.
First, the entrée is the nines competition. It’s a step in the right direction. It’s fast, with high points on offer. The format showcases the flamboyance of the game.
Second, the main course — the home and away NRL season. In modern times, the structure is mostly unchanged. There continue to be issues around State of Origin scheduling. Officiating is a problem. With NRL Chief Executive Officer Todd Greenberg in charge and originating from clubland, at least he will know the name of the Kangaroos captain. In 2016, Fox Sports enhanced the television experience. Now it’s Channel Nine’s turn to up their game.
Third, dessert — State of Origin. The product that keeps giving, despite the dominance of one side over the last decade. It’s an annual treat.
Fourth, internationals. The Kangaroos will always go in favourites and occasionally the Kiwis will spring an upset. Otherwise, the international game feels like flat lemonade. It is a weak product.
Can rugby league survive by serving four products?
Can rugby league thrive by serving four products?
Rugby league is not innovating its home and away season product. It is slow off the mark. Other sports are not just nipping at the heels of rugby league, they are already overtaking them.
In comparison with other sports, rugby league is not innovating enough. The product offering is stagnant.
Cricket is an excellent comparison and benchmark.
Cricket, also rich in tradition like rugby league, is a blend of new and old. For those who command the direction of rugby league in Australia, cricket tells the story of what’s possible.
Cricket offers greater diversity of product. Rugby league does not.
Cricket is a truly international game. With just three mildly competitive nations, rugby league is not an international product.
Cricket has BBL, a new product that has reinvigorated the sport. The NRL does not.
When I attended a BBL match this summer, my perspective on the NRL changed.
The BBL experience towers over a regular season NRL match.
The new ace up the sleeve of Cricket Australia was crafted through market research and inspiration from the American event like experience of sports.
Cricket Australia recognised that it had problems with its product offering. CA’s General Manager of Operations Mike McKenna, explained to Fairfax Media how cricket needed to capture the youth market:
“We had research that showed for boys aged under 15, cricket was their seventh-favourite sport and for girls it was their 14th.”
CA engaged Dan Migala, the head of the Chicago-based sports marketing firm Property Consulting Group. Migala had worked with MLB, NBA and NFL franchises, and considered sport part of the entertainment industry.
BBL’s success depended upon “deliver[ing] entertainment that also happened to have a cricket match involved”.
The BBL provided a pathway for getting kids and their families involved in the game and it has succeeded.
According to Monash University’s media and communications researcher, Associate Professor Brett Hutchins, “the Big Bash knew its target market, the younger fans, and they dragged their parents along”.
BBL is family friendly and has captured younger fans. From my own observations and comparison with Brisbane Heat versus Brisbane Broncos, there are more kids at the cricket.
BBL features better use of mascots, team branding and on-field entertainment.
There is better interactivity and access to the players. This provides an engaging experience live as well as in the living room.
Twenty3 Sports and Entertainment’s CEO John Tripodi said that the product was “a perfect fusion of sport and entertainment.”
The Americanised repackaging of cricket may turn off traditionalists. But the upside is greater than the downside. TV ratings reinforce the story. The New Daily reported:
On average 29,443 attended each game, placing the BBL just behind the AFL (33,428) and above the NRL (14,994). Television ratings also boomed. Around 1.13 million viewers watched each game last season, an 18 per cent jump on 2014–15. That’s more than the AFL and NRL.
BBL is a case study in successful sports marketing.
The rugby league attitude of she’ll be right is a false prophet. The cliche of rugby league is resilient is a recipe for becoming irrelevant.
If rugby league does not accelerate its innovation, the game will gather dust and be trapped in an aging market.
Like BBL, the NRL needs to provide an experience and product with greater appeal to the youth. If it does not, it risks losing the next generation of fans.
While NRL HQ may drive innovation, it is not filtering down to clubs. In clubland, they are stuck in the old ways. A home and away game fixture is basically the same as it was twenty years ago.
Nick Tedeschi, one of the leading thinkers of rugby league, said the game needs to make the week in and week out of the competition more of an event.
“It needs to improve its in-stadium experience by a long, long way. It also needs to do a better job of explaining the game and showcasing the star athletes to non-traditional areas.”
For the NRL, the way forward is clear. The objective is obvious.
Todd Greenberg, it’s time to innovate.
Rugby league needs to thrive. Make it soar. Make your mark. Borrow from the best, and be inspired by what’s happened this summer. Brave and speedy innovation will take you there.
For starters, stop playing that damn Puff Daddy song.
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